Comfort Cooking from the Family Archives: A Midcentury Recipe for Baked Macaroni & Cheese

The San Francisco Bay area may be most well known for its sourdough bread, Ghiradelli chocolate, and all things aquatic found at Fisherman’s Wharf, but in my family, we have another favorite to add to the list too. It’s an heirloom recipe that comes from the kitchen of my adventurous epicurean aunt, Patti, who lived thirty miles south of the Golden Gate Bridge in a foggy seaside utopia called Half Moon Bay.

Always known as an agricultural town, Half Moon Bay, was first settled by the Ohlone Indians and then by Mexican, Portuguese and Spanish transplants in the mid-1800s. Since its early days, this hamlet has been home to commercial tree farms, flower fields, nurseries, and vegetable farms that serve the local, regional and national communities.

There, in her light-filled kitchen decorated with antique blue and white dishware, Aunt Patti experimented with all sorts of wonderful recipes over the course of the latter half of the 20th century. Many meals were inspired by her backyard garden and all the things that she could grow in this cool California climate, but she was also interested in just making good food that prompted smiles and a fun dining experience. Hand-tossed pizza, homemade layer cakes, marshmallow frosting, from-scratch waffles, grilled hamburgers stuffed with all sorts of pizazz – those are just a few highlights of mealtimes at Aunt Patti’s table.

Happy New Year vintage kitcheners! Since the world is still struggling through the pandemic and a multitude of other crises, I thought it would be fun to start 2022 off with a fun food from the family archives that has universal comfort appeal. Today, we are making Aunt Patti’s baked macaroni and cheese recipe that was passed down from her mom, Dorothy sometime during the 1960s.

Aunt Patti was the best kind of gourmet cook – curious, generous and always willing to try new things. If you are a regular reader of the blog, you might remember her handwritten recipe for Citrus Chicken that was featured here in 2018.

Just like the popular comfort foods of bread and chocolate that are embedded in San Francisco’s culinary landscape, this recipe that has danced around Aunt Patti’s kitchen for more than six decades is a reliable crowd-pleaser that’s been known to bring enjoyment even on the lousiest of days. And it’s no wonder – this classic food has been a salve for bad days and good appetites for centuries.

The idea of macaroni and cheese – a pasta baked in a saucy bath of melted dairy proteins – has been recorded in cookbooks since the 1700s. Elizabeth Raffald was the first to print it in book format in 1769. She made hers on the stovetop using macaroni, cream, flour, and parmesan cheese.

Elizabeth Raffald, an 18th-century English domestic worker, cooking instructor and author was the first to bring macaroni and cheese to the printed page in 1769.

Even though the recipe’s origins lay in the cuisines of England, Italy and France, macaroni and cheese nowadays, surprisingly, is most often associated with American cooking. We have Thomas Jefferson to thank for that. In the early 1800s, he was so fascinated by this dish after first trying it abroad, that he recreated it at Monticello and proudly served it at dinner parties. That helped to propel its popularity and expand its reach to other areas of the country. He even went so far as to work out the mechanical properties required to make, cut and dry the pasta just like he had seen it done in Italy.

Fun facts of culinary history aside, once baked macaroni and cheese tantalized the American palate it became a mainstay on the menu of popularity forevermore.

From Aunt Patti with love – Macaroni and Cheese – an heirloom family favorite.

Aunt Patti passed away in the late 1990s, so we don’t have her as a hands-on cooking consultant anymore but thankfully, my family still has all of her handwritten recipes, which makes it feel like she hasn’t altogether left us. When her recipe for macaroni and cheese resurfaced via my cousin this past Christmas season, it was a wonderful reacquaintance with her cooking style, her spirit and her son. And it sparked many discussions. More on that below, but first I wanted to point out the beauty of the actual recipe itself.

I love several things about its physical appearance in particular. 1) That the recipe is written in my Aunt’s hand. 2) That it is splattered and stained with over sixty years of use. 3) That it has the no-frills title of Macaroni Cheese and contains a few humbling spelling errors. 4) That it references my grandmother, Dorothy, in the top-right corner.

Grandma Dorothy, who lived between the years 1914-2012, was a great cook in her own right, but she was shyer than my aunt when it came to talking about food and how she prepared it. Luckily, Aunt Patti was a great recorder and when she fell in love with a recipe she liked, she wrote it down and filed it away in her recipe box. Did Grandma Dorothy invent this recipe, using her thrifty Depression-era cooking skills and staples she had on hand? Did Aunt Patti tweak it a little bit in the 1960s to make it her own? We’ll never know. But the fact that it has been made again and again in the same California kitchen for the past 60 years is proof enough that’s it’s a good one to keep hold of.

There are a bevy of different ways to approach baked macaroni and cheese … from the basic (cheese, milk, butter, flour, pasta) to the fancy (gourmet cheeses, spicy aromatics, infused butter, thick cream, specialty pasta). Aunt Patti’s recipe falls somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t contain any pricey ingredients or hard-to-find flavors but it does combine two more unusual components not often associated with a cheesy casserole.

The inclusion of sour cream and cottage cheese gives this recipe a rich, tangy flavor and fluffy consistency. It’s cheesy without being greasy and filling without being dense. It reheats beautifully and freezes even better, so if you wanted to make a big batch, double the ingredients and you’ll have a comforting casserole (or two!) for many winter meals to come. And since this recipe is connected to both my aunt and my grandmother, I’m taking the liberty to retitle it to include my grandmother’s last name and my aunt’s maiden name so that they will both be credited. This way, from here on out, the recipe will act as a tribute to two 20th century women who inspired each other in the kitchen. In turn, I hope their recipe inspires you too.

Macaroni Cheese of the Ladies’ Race

Serves 6-8

7 oz (1 3/4 cup) elbow macaroni or ditalini pasta

2 cups small curd cottage cheese

1 cup sour cream

1 egg, slightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

dash pepper

8 oz (two cups) sharp cheddar cheese, grated

paprika (optional)

Preheat oven to 350. Cook macaroni on the stovetop in boiling salted water for 12 minutes. While the macaroni is cooking, mix all the other ingredients in a large bowl.

Fold in cooked pasta. Spread mixture evenly in a casserole dish. Top with paprika or cracked black pepper or neither – whichever you prefer.

Bake in the oven for 45 minutes or until the top of the casserole begins to turn golden brown. Let it rest on a cooling rack for just a few minutes before serving.

Aunt Patti would have suggested pairing this casserole with a simple side salad of home-grown lettuces, but it’s really delightful just enjoyed on its own too. The sharpness of the sour cream in combination with the creaminess of the two cheeses offers a silky flavor profile that is a dynamic, satisfying meal unto itself.

Since this recipe festively made the rounds in the kitchens of almost every single one of my family members and then their friends and their family this Christmas, it has sparked quite a few discussions.

I’ve learned that macaroni and cheese means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I’ve learned that there are two camps – those who prefer a homemade recipe like this one and those who prefer a boxed stove-top kind. I’ve learned that some people like extra cheesy, extra creamy macaroni swimming in sauce, and I’ve learned that some people prefer a lighter more souffle-like texture. I’ve learned that some people like to add a bunch of flavor enticing extras like bacon, chives, jalapenos, buttermilk, herbs and even apples to the mix. And I’ve learned that some people are purists and prefer nothing more than the likes of the original four ingredients first prescribed by Elizabeth Raffald’s 18th-century recipe. Like, pizza and all the zillion different ways you can top it, I’ve learned that strong opinions swirl around the kitchen when it comes to this type of comfort food.

I’ve also learned things about my own preferences and how I like to approach food these days. I love that this recipe is connected to a particular place and a particular set of women. I love that an old piece of paper with its compilation of interesting ingredients still continues to connect family and now you, here on the blog, sixty years after it was written. And I love that this recipe acts as an impetus to storytelling for the cooks who came before us. That to me is the real comfort of this comfort food.

If you try this recipe, I encourage you to comment below with your thoughts on this whole matter of macaroni and the cheese it swims with. Both Aunt Patti and Grandma Dorothy would have been pleased as punch to hear your thoughts, just as I am now. Passions and opinions are most welcome here!

Cheers to favorite family recipes, to the kitchens that keep them, and to the conversations that continue to float around them. And cheers to 2022. I hope your kitchen greets you with joy every day of this brand new year.

Color Therapy in Cooking and Colombia

The rainbow shades of Bogata, Colombia.

Crimson, ochre, emerald, fuschia, celadon, aubergine, tangerine – those are just a few of the everyday shades that radiate from the country most often recognized as hosting the happiest residents on Earth. Welcome to Week 10 of the International Vintage Recipe Tour 2020!

This week we are in Colombia via the kitchen to make a bountiful one pot comfort meal bursting with vibrant vegetables, spices and herbs.  We’ll also be discussing color therapy in relation to cooking and how it can instantly lift your spirit and help calm your anxiety. Two factors that seem especially important these days when it comes to navigating quarantine, the coronavirus and the current state of our world.

All of the images in this week’s post (except the recipe-related ones) were taken by photographers in Colombia, each capturing the jubilant atmosphere of a country caught up in color. Get ready to be dazzled dear kitcheners. Joyful images of bright beauty await. Welcome to life inside a rainbow. Welcome to Colombia…

The Colombian flag flying high in Bogata. Photograph by Flavia Carpia

Parrots of Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The verdant mountains of Salento, Colombia. Photograph by Christian Rodriguez

Shopping in Colombia captures all your attention. Photograph by Michael Baron

As you can see, it’s pretty difficult to talk about Colombia and not talk about hues bright and bold. Everything from their buildings to their birds to their landscapes to their food burst with  colors impossible to ignore.

Cartegena,Colombia. Photograph by Ricardo Gomez Angel.

Colombia is home to 4,000 thousand varieties of orchids. It is even their national flower. Photo by Steve Seck

There are lots of theories that float around about why Colombia in particular, a country that has known poverty, hardship, and crime for most of the past two centuries, continues to remain recognized for glee and good nature.

Flowers float and fall everywhere. This is someone’s front door in Bolivar, Colombia. Photograph by Regina Anaejionu

 

Colorful birds zip around the skies. Photograph by Andres Herrera.

Even a morning cup of coffee starts with a shade of sunshine. Photograph taken at a cafe in Bogata, Colombia by Dan Gold.

Cano Crisrales – known as the most colorful river in the world due to an array of multi-colored seasonal algae blossoms is located in the Macarena Mountain Range in Meta, Colombia

Some speculate that it’s because of its incredible biodiversity, or the fact that bicycling is the king of all roads and exercise, or that personal relationships are the most valued treasure. Others say that it is more psychological.

Where the flamingos meet. Parque Natural Los Flamenco in Camarones, Colombia.

In general, the simple joys of life in Colombia are revered – socializing, storytelling, dancing, laughing, cooking, eating, spending time together. In Colombia, senior citizens are considered the loudest voices, change is constant, attitudes are relaxed and expectations are low. All of these qualities yield more content behavior and a fuller appreciation of things that Colombians do have instead of things they don’t have. There is also carnival. Consistent year-round reminders to celebrate and extol their unique cultural heritage might just be one reason, the reason, why Colombians may be happier than most nationalities. Every month of the year in Colombia you can find at least a handful of festivals somewhere within the country each celebrating a wide variety of things – folklore, religion, history, etc. In total, Colombia hosts over 120 festivals a year, which basically boils down to a party every three days.

Every day is a good day to fly a pennant flag in Colombia! Photograph by Jorge Gardener

I like to think that it has something to do with Colombia’s food culture too. In addition, to happy spirits, Colombia is home to happy habitats for an immense range of plants and animals (close to 60,000 species). Being the second most biodiverse country in the world means having easy (or at least easier) access to a wide variety of naturally fresh fruits and vegetables in a variety of colors, shapes and consistencies.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel

In Colombia you can find it all – forests, seasides, wetlands, mountains, flat lands, big cities, small towns, deserts, lakes, rivers, streams, remote outposts and everything in between. This is important for variety and interest when it comes to diet. Boredom is the number one killer of a good appetite, but when you are lucky enough to live in a place where such culinary abundance abounds, then naturally your day will be more enticing just based solely on the food you have available to feed your family, your friends and yourself.

Colombian corn. Photograph by Frank Merino.

Roadside cafe amidst color and character. Photograph by Frank Mercado.

The Colombian diet varies between regions but most commonly consists of a medley of rice, corn, vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood, beans, grains, dairy, fruit, coffee and chocolate. This week we are making Colombian Beef Stew, the most colorful dish of the Recipe Tour so far.

Colombian Beef Stew circa 1971

I’ve always thought of beef stew as a brown, lumpy semi-soup, a conglomeration that contains hours of cooked meat and soggy vegetables and bland, basic flavors. This is not the case of stew in Colombia. Based on the photos of the country peppered throughout this post should we be surprised that Colombian Beef Stew is a kaleidoscope of color too?

You’ll notice that this recipe includes traditional hallmarks of beef stew – meat, potatoes, carrots, celery, onions but it differs in the way it is cooked and offers some interesting ingredients that yield a wonderful array of complimentary flavors.  I loved it for its non-brown broth, dynamic appearance, and its inclusion of whole corn cobs. It also contains an interesting wheel of precise spice, which I found intriguing… 6 peppercorns (not 5, not 7!), one garlic clove halved (not minced nor crushed), dried oregano as opposed to fresh and cider vinegar (a third acid  – on top of tomatoes and onions).

Admittedly, it started out as one of those recipes I didn’t really have high hopes for based on my predilection for not really liking beef stew to begin with. Also, it called for whole ears of corn. Something I have never bought 1) in the grocery store or 2) in the middle of March. This recipe showed me what a corn evader I’ve been all these years. The farmers market in the middle of hot, humid, high summer is the only time I’ve ever purchased ears of corn, assuming that local, like tomatoes, would far surpass anything available from the trucked in variety at the grocery store.  This recipe made me reconsider all that. The corn was wonderful and just as comparable in taste as a mid-summer crop.

Most importantly though, I loved this recipe for its vivid arrangement. The days as of late have been grey and rainy around here, as if Lady Nature was just as forlorn about all the recent world events. But in the kitchen, in the stew pot, in this recipe, my senses delighted. There was the bright red of the grass-fed beef, the flamboyant orange of the carrots, the vivacity of the celery greens. The saffron bled a watery shade of marigold when mixed with water, the cumin smelled of wood smoke, and the sight of the tomato red cook pot itself  – an inheritance from my dear dad’s collection – brought instant joy. All of this is most revealing in a myriad of subtle ways.

Color works magic on our bodies whether we recognize it or not. Thanks to neurons, electromagnetic energy, pulsating frequencies, and the subconscious way in which we process information, our response to color when it comes to cooking and food is both revealing, comforting, therapeutic and ever changing.

It’s the reason why in times of stress or struggle we crave foods that are yellow, red or brown (think macaroni and cheese, red lentils, lasagna, beans or burgers). They are the comforting caretaker colors. Brown nurtures the spirit, red gives us energy and yellow offers optimism. All things your body inherently craves and needs in order to overcome sadness, depression, trauma or lack of control.  Blue foods are calming and signal self-care. Green foods signal health, vitality, and creativity while orange foods trigger happiness.

So while I was throwing carrots, celery, stew meat, cumin, saffron, corn and peas into a pot I was also adding comfort, energy, optimism, vitality and happiness to the mix. No wonder I loved this recipe so much! This sounds like a pretty good way to inherently fight back against the coronavirus, and the day to day uncertainty of navigating an international crisis while recovering from the effects of a tornado.

It also makes sense reagrding Colombia and why it radiates with joy. All their color balances all their emotions. Their bright and bold palettes soothe and comfort and excite and calm. Their colorful culture invokes passion and positivity.  It enchants and exhilarates. Happiness begets happiness. Color brings joy. Whether you are talking about a banana, a building, a bed of flowers or a beef stew:)

If things seem insurmountably bleak these days, I recommend pulling out the biggest cooking pot you have and filling it with some Colombian Beef Stew. It may not be the answer to everything, but it is a start to feeling better. Sometimes all we need to get us through is just a splash of color.

Colombian Beef and Vegetable Stew (Cocido Bogotano)

(Serves 6-8)

2 lbs boneless lean beef stew meat, cut into 1.5 inch cubes (I used grass-fed beef)

1 bay leaf

1/2 teaspoon ground cumin

6 peppercorns

1 clove garlic, halved

1 teaspoon cider vinegar

2 teaspoons salt

3 cups plus 1 teaspoon cold water

2 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed

2 large carrots, peeled and diced

4 ribs celery, sliced

4 ears of corn, shucked and cut into 2 inch lengths

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup diced tomato ( I used canned since it’s not tomato season quite yet!)

1/4 teaspoon ground saffron (Special Note: So far, I’ve found that Trader Joe’s is the best place to find this at the most reasonable price)

1/2 teaspoon dried oregano

1 cup fresh or frozen peas

Place the meat in a saucepan with the bay leaf, cumin, peppercorns, garlic, vinegar, salt and three cups water.

Cover and cook slowly for one hour, until the meat is almost tender.

Add the potatoes, carrots, celery, corn, onion and tomato.

Cover and cook for 20 minutes, until the vegetables are tender.

Dissolve the saffron in one teaspoon water and add to stew, along with the oregano and peas. Cover and cook for 10 minutes, until the vegetables are done. Serve in bowls accompanied with slices of rustic bread and garnished with celery leaves.

Cheers to Colombia for providing a much needed dose of color and joy to our lives this week and to the humble stew pot for managing to be both a homecooker and a therapist all in one!

Join us next Wednesday for Week 11 when we head to Cuba where we get wrapped up in the world of slow roasting and botanicals. In the meantime, take care of your yourself and your spirit.